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Bella English

To die with dignity, he left the US

Chester Nimitz Jr. was 86, and his wife, Joan, 89, and both suffering from a host of degenerative ailments when they decided to end their lives.
Chester Nimitz Jr. was 86, and his wife, Joan, 89, and both suffering from a host of degenerative ailments when they decided to end their lives.handout/Boston Globe

Until someone you love becomes terminally ill or injured to the point of no return, you may not give much thought to the death with dignity cause. Having watched both of my parents suffer needlessly, I have long been a proponent of the right to die, when the time is right.

I’ve been thinking more about it since the recent death of my dear friend Danny, who fought hard against an aggressive brain cancer that outfoxed five surgeries, multiple chemo sessions, radiation, and experimental treatments.

Danny exercised a right everyone in this country should have: He chose to end his life in a peaceful and humane way. But to do so, he had to leave this country.

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With a wife and two boys and a ton of devoted friends, Danny desperately wanted to live. But he also wanted to spare himself, and especially his family, the agony of an agonizing death. I’m not using his last name to protect the privacy of his sons, who are grieving their father.

To end the devastation of the deadly disease, he had to be wheeled onto a plane headed for Switzerland, where he had made arrangements with a nonprofit that assists those with terminal illnesses. There was a narrow window: He had to know what he was doing and take the prescribed medication himself.

Danny lived in a state, as most of us do, that has yet to pass a death with dignity law. Only Oregon, Washington, Montana, Vermont, and California have such laws, which provide some comfort to those with six months or less to live. In November, Colorado voters will take up the question.

For Danny, who lived in New York, it meant that his wife had to charter a plane to get him to Switzerland, with the physical and financial burden of doing so. They had made an earlier trip so that he could be interviewed and approved, with the paperwork from his doctors in order.

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The family felt grateful that they had the option and could afford it. I know the sense of relief it gave Danny to have this last resort in his back pocket.

But why couldn’t he have spent his last hours in his own favorite chair, in his own home, with his own food or wine or music with whomever he wanted, including pets? And what about the rest of us, who can’t afford to move in order to die in peace?

As baby boomers age, more of us should, and will, be asking these questions.

The answer is, of course, politics. When Massachusetts held a referendum on the issue in 2012, the Archdiocese of Boston led the fight, and Catholic donors contributed millions to defeat Question 2, which would have let terminally ill people obtain a prescription drug to end their lives.

Polls a month before the vote showed that the majority of voters here supported the initiative. It failed by 2 points, with opponents spending six times what proponents had. The opposition’s campaign, led by spin doctor Joseph Baerlein of Rasky Baerlein Strategic Communications, employed advertising that some called misleading.

“It was a war between reality and scare tactics,” Dr. Marcia Angell, former editor of the New England Journal of Medicine, said at the time.

Danny’s widow puts the issue this way: “End-of-life misery can grind a family into emotional dust, causing incalculable harm as loved ones witness suffering that they’re powerless to stop.” That she and the couple’s two sons could witness his peaceful death provided them with a comfort level not possible in most of America.

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As she puts it: “You have to be a cat or dog to be assured a compassionate ending in the US.”

In 2014, Brittany Maynard, 29 and terminally ill with brain cancer, became the face of death with dignity when she moved from California to Oregon with her husband so that she could “pass away with dignity” amid seizures, pain, and stroke-like symptoms. In 2015, California passed the “End of Life Option Act.”

A dozen years earlier, my friend Sarah Smith’s parents decided to take end-of-life matters into their own hands. Chester Nimitz Jr. was 86, his wife Joan 89, both suffering from a host of degenerative ailments when they decided to end their lives. Nimitz, a rear admiral in the Navy, was a highly decorated World War II veteran who served under his father, Admiral of the Fleet Chester W. Nimitz Sr., who commanded the Pacific forces that defeated the Japanese.

Nimitz Jr. and his wife had planned their deaths meticulously, following suggestions in the book “Final Exit” by Derek Humphry, then president of the Hemlock Society.

In 2002, when Sarah, then my Milton neighbor, told me about her parents’ deaths at their Needham apartment, she said she and her sisters were supportive and had a family lunch the day before they died. Sarah’s sister Betsy Van Dorn, in fact, has made the issue a calling. She is head of development for the board of Compassion & Choices, a nonprofit devoted to expanding end-of-life choices.

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She notes that death with dignity laws give people the peace of mind to enjoy what they have left of life. “Once you acknowledge that you’re going to die, you don’t need doctors pushing one more thing, with people ending up in ICU dying unpleasant and expensive deaths,” says Van Dorn, who lives in Boston.

She cites Governor Jerry Brown of California. “He trained as a Jesuit, and when he signed the California law, he said, ‘I honestly don’t know what I would do if I faced end-of-life decisions, but I certainly know I would never deny that option to someone else.”

Exactly.

Though he wrote them for a James Bond movie, Paul McCartney’s words, “Live and Let Die,’’ would be a perfect motto for the death with dignity movement. I have no doubt that Danny, with his big heart and wounded brain, would agree.


Bella English writes from Milton. She can be reached at english@globe.com.